The influence of first language on playing brass instruments : an ultrasound study of Tongan and New Zealand trombonists.

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Theses / Dissertations
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Thesis discipline
Degree name
Doctor of Philosophy
University of Canterbury
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Volume Title
Heyne, Matthias

This thesis attempts to answer the question whether there is an influence of native language on the playing of brass instruments. Two hypotheses are formulated based on an extensive literature review of brass instrument acoustics, previous empirical research, and findings from motor control and speech production. Hypothesis 1 posits that brass players can perceive differences in the playing of performers from different language backgrounds, and is cautiously answered in the affirmative by findings from an online questionnaire that shows that players believe they can perceive such differences. Hypothesis 2a) predicts that the tongue position assumed during sustained note production on brass instruments is based on motor memory from a player’s native language vowel production, with an extension b) predicting that functionally independent sections of the tongue would pattern individually and be affected differently by language influence, offering support for modular accounts of motor control. To address this hypothesis, an ultrasound study of ten Tongan and nine New Zealand English-speaking trombone players is carried out, recording participants while reading wordlists and during trombone playing. Results show clear differences between the average tongue positions employed by performers from each group. Except in a few individual cases, there is no match between the overall tongue shape for vowels and sustained note production on the language group level; different patterns apply for the back and front of the tongue. This finding supports the extension of hypothesis 2 and provides evidence for modular theories of motor control and their application to the vocal tract musculature. Various constraints related to airflow, acoustics, and articulatory efficiency are discussed; it is suggested that language influence, while clearly visible in the results, is secondary to these constraints. Confounds of the study include the difficult nature of ultrasound probe stabilization during trombone playing, the challenge of comparing articulatory movements during two very different activities, and differences in trombone playing proficiency across the two observed language groups. In addition to providing support for modular theories of (speech) motor control, the thesis makes an important contribution to ultrasound methodology by proposing a principled way for normalizing across participants and different vocal tract activities.

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